Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 22
The American Public Library
Construction of a Community Reading Institution

Wayne A. Wiegand

.  .  .


The Fiction Debate

On 4 October 1876, during the nation’s centennial celebration in Philadelphia, 103 people gathered to discuss the status of libraries in the United States. Most of the attendees were librarians; most rightly sensed they were present at the start of something significant. Four things happened at the conference to mark the public library’s role in American print culture history for the next half century. First, conference goers resolved to establish the American Library Association (ALA), which quickly became the national voice for librarianship. Second, they spent considerable time discussing Melvil Dewey’s decimal classification system, a new scheme advocated for organizing all library collections. Third, they examined reports in the newly published Public Libraries in the United States of America that showed growing government interest in American library development.1 Fourth, they engaged in a vigorous debate about what kinds of novels properly belonged in an American public library.

The last was unique among the four because it reflected a dilemma rather than an accomplishment. Although all conference participants agreed that dime novels like the Deadwood Dick series and tabloids like the Police Gazette had no place in a “public” library, they disagreed on novels of “marginal quality” like Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Ouida (Mary Elizabeth Braddon) and Trial for Her Life (1869) by Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth. In a talk that occasioned the “most discussion of the conference,” Chicago Public Library Director William Frederick Poole argued that it was more important for public libraries to foster reading than to limit access to marginal fiction. Once public library users formed the habit of reading, he reasoned, they would naturally solicit the librarian’s advice to help them “elevate” their tastes. William Kite of the Friends’ Library in Germantown, Pennsylvania, argued in contrast that novels did not belong in libraries. James W. Ward of the Grosvenor Library in Buffalo called for more discretion: “If the novel is a good book,” it deserved a place in the public library. “If in any sense it is a bad or even useless book,” however, “it

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